“It is given to some to speak with tongues”

I served my mission in the Midwestern United States, and we had a decent amount of contact with groups, such as the Pentecostals, who were enthusiastic about charismatic gifts of the Spirit.  I remember on one occasion, that a missionary serving in the same district approached me about an investigator they she been working with who believed that speaking in tongues (in the sense of spouting out what sounded like gibberish while under the power of the Holy Spirit) was a very important part of Christianity and a sign that God was involved in a Church.  The missionary, on the other hand (as I remember) wanted to know the best way to explain that the gift of tongues was about speaking in other languages with the help of the Spirit and that the way the investigator understood the gift of tongues was entirely unnecessary.  I referred her to the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, which has a chapter that discusses the subject, as a way of saying that both ways of understanding the gift of tongues are legitimate and acceptable in our Church’s doctrine and history, but that there are some cautions associated with the gift that need to be kept in mind.

The two ways of understanding the gift of tongues do have technical terms associated with understanding two charismatic phenomena.  Glossolalia is the term for the type of speaking in tongues the Pentecostal investigator had in mind—the phenomenon of (apparently) speaking in an unknown language, especially in a religious context.  Xenolalia or xenoglossia is the term for the type of speaking in tongues my missionary friend had in mind—the phenomenon of being able to speak or write a language one could not have acquired by natural means.  Both have a history within our Church.

Glossolalia seems to have been introduced to the Church fairly early on.  For example, as described in Saints, vol 1: The Standard of Truth, when Brigham Young and Joseph Smith met for the first time in late 1832, Smith invited Young into his apartment for a meal:

Following the meal, Joseph held a small meeting and invited Brigham to pray. As he bowed his head, Brigham felt the Spirit move him to speak in an unknown language. The people in the room were startled. Over the last year, they had seen many people mimic the gifts of the Spirit with wild behavior. What Brigham did was different.

“Brethren, I shall never oppose anything that comes from the Lord,” Joseph said, sensing their discomfort. “That tongue is from God.”

Joseph then spoke in the same language, declaring that it was the language Adam had spoken in the Garden of Eden and encouraging the Saints to seek the gift of tongues, as Paul had done in the New Testament, for the benefit of the children of God.[1]

This was an official sanctioning of glossolalia, connecting it to the Adamic language.  Even before then, an early Kirtland convert known as Black Pete, a former slave, brought his experience with the slave shout tradition into the Church, including possibly the practice of speaking in tongues.[2] The wild behavior spoken of in the quote above, however, was related to earlier incidents that form some of the background for the 8 March 1831 revelation now known as D&C 46.

That revelation was received not long after the Saints began to gather to Kirtland, Ohio.  The Saints who had been living there already were practicing spiritual expressions that Joseph Smith deemed to be unacceptable.  John Whitmer felt that the Saints there had been deceived and described seeing some who “lost their strength, and some slid on the floor, and such like maneuvers, which proved greatly to th[e] injury of the cause.”[3]  Whitmer also wrote that: “Some would fancy to themselves that they had the sword of Laban, and would wield it as expert as a light dragoon, some would act like an Indian in the act of scalping, some would slide or scoot and [on] the floor, with the rapidity of a serpent, which the[y] termed sailing in the boat to the Lamanites.”[4]  While those who engaged in these practices seemed to be sincere about what they were doing, not everyone felt that these proceedings were of God.  As John Corrill would recall: “It was but a very few of the church who were exercised in that way,” and there were many, he added, that “were suspicious that it was from an evil source.”[5]  Joseph Smith was among the latter, noting in a letter that: “I hav[e] been ingageed in regulating the Churches here as the deciples are numerous and the devil had made many attempts to over throw them it has been a Serious job but the Lord is with us and we have overcome and have all things regular.”[6]

The 8 March 1831 revelation was intended to address these issues, listing acceptable gifts of the Spirit and condemning others as not coming from God.  The acceptable gifts included:

To some is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the son of God & that he was crusified for the sins of the World to others it is given to believe on their words that they also may might have eternal life if they continue faithful And again to some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know the Defferences of administeration as it will be pleasing unto the same Lord … And again it is given by the Holy Ghost to some to know the diversities of opperations whether it be of God or not so that the manifestations of the spirit may be given to evry man to prophet [profit] withall And again Verily I say unto you to some it is given by the spirit of God the word of wisdom to another it is given the word of Knowledge that all may be taught to be wise & to have knowledge & again to some it is given to have faith to be healed & to others it is given to have faith to heal And again to some it is given the working of miracles & to others it is given to prophecy & to others the decerning of spirits & again it is given to some to speak with tongues & to another it is given the interpretation of tongues & all these gifts cometh from [God] for the benefit of the children of God.[7]

These limited the spiritual gifts to a select group, primarily focused on building faith, with a few more miraculous ones included at the end.

As a child in Primary, raised with the xenoglossia understanding of the gift of tongues, I was always intrigued that the gift “to speak with tongues” was a separate one from being “given the interpretation of tongues.”  It seemed to me that if you could speak a language, you would need to understand it too to truly have the gift of tongues.  Yet, the separation of the two makes more sense in the way that glossolalia was practiced in the early Church, where one person would speak in an unknown (or Adamic) language and then a second person would give an interpretation of what had been said.  For example, in the book At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women, one of the discourses included in the volume was from an 1835 meeting where Elizabeth Ann Whitney stood and sang in tongues, following which Parley P. Pratt offered a translation.[8]  It is with his practice in mind that Joseph Smith the Prophet would later teach that: “Speak not in the gift of Tongues without understanding it, or without interpretation, The Devil can speak in Tongues. The Adversary will come with his work, he can tempt all classes Can speak in English or Dutch.— Let no one speak in tongues unless he interpret.”[9]  It was not an uncommon practice in the early Mormon movement to have people speak in tongues and offer translations of what had been said.

Even with glossolalia being relatively common in the Church, xenolalia was also a way in which the gift of tongues was understood from a fairly early period.  In 1839, Joseph Smith taught that: “Tongues were given for the purpose of preaching among those whose language is not understood, as on the day of Pentecost &c”.[10]  We have accounts of missionaries having experiences with xenolalia, such as George Q. Cannon’s story of preaching in Hawaii and that after he exercised “faith before the Lord to obtain the gift of talking and understanding the language” of the Hawaiians, on one evening he “felt a peculiar sensation in my ears” and “from that time forward I had but little, if any difficulty in understanding what the people said.”[11]  Cannon felt he had received divine aid in speaking the language of the Hawaiians for the purpose of missionary work.

Another example form of the gift of tongues among my own ancestors was recorded by Charles Pulsipher.  He recalled a time where he was captured by a band of Utes and prayed, noting that he did “not know their language,” and referred to an earlier promise blessing of being able to “have the power to speak the language of any nation or tribe amongst whom my lot was cast.”  He then stated that in the prayer, he told God that: “The time has come for this to be fulfilld give me power I pray to speak to this people that I may convince them that I am their friend and thus gain my liberty again.”  Afterwards, he recalled “speaking to the chief with great earnestness and word come to me as fast as I could utter them but what words I used to convey my meaning I do not know.”  He gave a description of what he felt he had said, and then said that after he “felt I had talked long enough to reach the hearts of all, ceased.”  The Utes answered him, then let him go on his way on good terms, which Charles presented as being a result of a miraculous experience with xenolalia.[12]

Gradually, xenolalia began to overtake glossolalia as the primary way of understanding the gift of tongues in the Church.  The practice of glossolalia declined over time, particularly during the early 1900s, and especially among men in the Church.[13]  Church leaders became progressively more hostile to the practice of glossolalia, particularly during the Heber J. Grant administration (1918-1945).  For example, in 1923, the First Presidency wrote a letter to President Heber Q. Hale of the Boise Stake about an incident that happened in a Nampa Relief Society meeting where one woman spoke in tongues and another interpreted, as had been common in earlier times.  In the letter, however, the First Presidency indicated that the gift of tongues only existed to facilitate “preaching among peoples whose language is not understood.  This being the case, it was entirely unnecessary … to resort to speaking in tongues on the occasion referred to, as all present spoke the same language.”  They urged the stake president to advise the sister in question “to let speaking in tongues alone and to confine her speech to her own language.”[14]  The letter seems to be a fairly straightforward rejection of glossolalia in favor of xenolalia.

That transition in the early 20th century set the stage for the current state of affairs in the Church.  Xenolalia seems to be the predominant way to understand the gift of tongues in the Church today—most often, it is understood to be divine help in understanding and speaking a foreign language, particularly when it comes to missionary work.  Glossolalia, in my experience, is generally viewed as something strange and outside our Church’s experience, more in the domain of the holiness movement in Protestant Christianity.  Still, occasionally stories emerge of glossolalia.  I knew of a man who claimed to have given a confirmation blessing to a new convert in the Adamic language as an example of glossolalia.  Such experiences are, however, far and few between in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today when it comes to experiences with speaking in tongues.



[1] Saints, vol 1: The Standard of Truth (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2018), 163, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/saints-v1/15-holy-places.p23-p25?lang=eng#p23#p23

[2] See https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/revelations-in-context/religious-enthusiasm-among-early-ohio-converts?lang=eng

[3] “John Whitmer, History, 1831–circa 1847,” p. 10, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed May 5, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/john-whitmer-history-1831-circa-1847/14

[4] “John Whitmer, History, 1831–circa 1847,” p. 26, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed May 5, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/john-whitmer-history-1831-circa-1847/30

[5] John Corrill, “Brief History,” Manuscript, circa 1838–1839, 23, josephsmithpapers.org.

[6] “Letter to Hyrum Smith, 3–4 March 1831,” p. [1], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed May 5, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-hyrum-smith-3-4-march-1831/1

[7] “Revelation, circa 8 March 1831–A [D&C 46],” p. 77, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed May 5, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-circa-8-march-1831-a-dc-46/2

[8] See “Adam-ondi-Ahman”, in At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women (Salt Lake City: tHe Church Historian’s Press, 2017), 7-9, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/church-historians-press/at-the-pulpit/part-1/chapter-2?lang=eng.

[9] “Discourse, between circa 26 June and circa 4 August 1839–A, as Reported by Willard Richards,” p. 73, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed May 5, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/discourse-between-circa-26-june-and-circa-4-august-1839-a-as-reported-by-willard-richards/11

[10] “History, 1838–1856, volume C-1 [2 November 1838–31 July 1842] [addenda],” p. 8 [addenda], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed May 5, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-c-1-2-november-1838-31-july-1842/543

[11] George Q. Cannon, quoted in Edwin F. Parry, “Missionary Life,” Juvenile Instructor, vol. 33, no. 20 (Oct. 15, 1898), 682–83.

[12] Charles Pulsipher autobiographical sketch, pp. 56-58, copy in author’s possession.

[13] See Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 309-311.

[14] First Presidency Letter to Heber Q. Hale, March 28, 1923, cited in Alexander, Mormonism in Transition, 310.

9 comments for ““It is given to some to speak with tongues”

  1. Thank you for this topic, Chad.

    Speaking in tongues is the use of metaphor and symbol to express deeper meaning or truth. The Revelation of Jesus recorded by John, Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel–speaking in tongues. Parables of the New Testament–tongues. Lehi’s vision: tongues; parable of vineyard: tongues. And so forth.

    The gift of tongues can transcend culture and language inasmuch as the archetype and symbol being used are universal.

    Joseph rescued Brigham’s nonsense. Helped Brigham save face. Blabbering is not of God, neither is idiocy. Joseph’s comment about Brigham’s babbling should have been understood as a reference about Brigham’s ape-like character.

    Joseph was a gentleman. Note that Brigham never attempted such a stupid stunt again, notice thereafter the jibberish fell to the wayside. Joseph corrected Brigham, and chastised him by by “covering” the sin of feigning revelation.

    Crazy belief systems in the church obfuscate doctrine.

  2. I have not found D&C 46 condemning any gifts of the Spirit as not coming from God. I did find a warning against being deceived or seduced by “evil spirits, or doctrines of devils, or the commandments of men; for some are of men, and others of devils.” Is that what you meant? Prayer and thanksgiving are the methods prescribed for avoiding those things. To my observation, they are not universally effective.

    The list of acceptable gifts includes speaking with tongues & the interpretation of tongues. If that was a reference to glossolalia, as some seem to have understood it, it seems to me in conflict with v.9’s condemnation of seeking such gifts for signs “that they may consume it upon their lusts.” Perhaps there is some purpose of glossolalia other than a performance used as a sign of the contemporary power of some “spirit”, but I haven’t found it. Alternatively, the Section 46 approval of speaking in tongues and interpretation of tongues seems to need to be limited to xenolalia or, as one of my LTM (yes, I’m that old) teachers theorized, an ability to learn and use a foreign language which he experienced for his mission, though the ability disappeared after the mission when he tried to learn another for academic purposes. But then what did Elizabeth Ann Whitney and Parley P. Pratt think they were doing? and why?

  3. Yes, I had in mind the indications in 46 that some charismatic experiences are not from God rather than specific gifts, so my bad for not phrasing that better.

    The issue is that it wasn’t just Brigham Young or Elizabeth Whitney or Parley Pratt who had experiences with glossolalia in the 19th century Church. It was a fairly widespread experience. But it is one that I don’t know the purpose of either, other than being seen as a spiritual experience and potentially as an opportunity for revelation. Perhaps with what you’ve brought up, Wondering, it could be a case of only gradually coming to understand the intent of the revelation as being about xenolalia.

  4. Well, I suppose it is possible to “lust” for “spiritual experience” observable by others. I suppose glossolalia could be an opportunity for revelation, but it seems to me that there are many other opportunities that do not constitute performances for spectators. “A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign…” Matt. 16:4
    There seems to me no need to hypothesize that BY or PPP, etc. were faultless conduits of revelation. :)

  5. I’ve always wondered about the glossolalia experiences where one translates. Does someone start “speaking in tongues” with no idea as to what is trying to be communicated (or do they just not care) and then find the interpretation to be helpful? Is someone waiting for someone else to start blabbering so that that way they can “interpret” what was being said, when in reality they’re just sharing with the group what they’ve been wanting to share?
    It’s a situation that just feels ripe for a con.

  6. Allow me to suggest three possible ways that glossolalia relates to the gift of tongues:

    1. It is a valid manifestation of the spirit only when there is somebody to interpret it. This seems to be the official interpretation, but doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.
    2. It is not a manifestation of the spirit and belief otherwise is (and was) mistaken. The gift of tongues is limited to xenoglossia.
    3. It is a manifestation of the spirit to the exhibitor alone and interpretation is irrelevant.

    I am more comfortable with #2 than with #1, but I find myself leaning toward #3. Here’s why.

    When I was a teenager, we were headed up the California coast over Thanksgiving weekend when my dad stopped to help a woman whose car had broken down and we ended up giving her and her daughter a lift to Lompoc. On the way, she revealed that she was part of the Maharishi’s inner circle and proceeded to give us the first discussion on Transcendental Meditation. To keep it short, she was saying that TM was a way to be awake but not thinking–analogous to the relationship between deep sleep (no dreams) and REM sleep (with dreams).

    Fast forward to about 15 years ago when I watched the movie Jesus Camp. At one point, the adult leader announced “OK, now we’re all going to speak in tongues,” and immediately she, and all the kids, just kind of zoned out and started spouting gibberish. They all did it at once and there was no attempt to interpret any of it. After watching for a minute, it occurred to me that they were attempting to achieve the same state that TM seeks and the gibberish was the equivalent of reciting mantras. I wonder if Catholics reciting Hail Marys aren’t doing the same thing.

    Mormons don’t have anything equivalent to any of this. But maybe those with the glossolalia version of the gift of tongues (which would not include me) could receive some benefit from it. Maybe they could achieve that transcendental state if they thought they were allowed to. Maybe our obsession with interpretation is misguided. Maybe the gift of interpretation of tongues is limited to xenoglossia, but the gift of tongues itself is not. Maybe we should tell people who feel that they have this gift that it is OK to practice it privately for their own edification.

  7. jader3rd, I’ve wondered the same thing about interpretation of tongues. I actually felt it was kind of questionable to include the 1835 interpretation in the At the Pulpit book as Elizabeth Ann Whitney’s sermon, because there is a good chance that the English text is more Pratt than Whitney. I suppose it does respect how they understood the event to have it included as an English version of Whitney’s glossolalia. But, there are also probably good reasons for why Joseph Smith cautioned people to not accept any interpretation of tongues as a binding revelation.

    That’s a really interesting perspective, lastlemming. I’ve never thought of it that way, but I kind of like it as a possible way to understand it. I’d be interested to look into 19th century Latter-day Saint experiences and see how frequently they actually insisted on the translation part of the experience and how often they just spoke in tongues without translation. It’s something so foreign to my religious experience that I’m genuinely intrigued by what the experience is actually like.

  8. To Wondering’s comment: “Well, I suppose it is possible to ‘lust’ for ‘spiritual experience’ observable by others,” it reminded me of something John Turner wrote about in Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet. While on the mission to England in 1839, Brigham Young kept demonstrating the gift of tongues to the saints in Manchester (I’ll also note here in response to Travis that, yes, Brigham Young did continue to practice the gift of tongues after that first time with Joseph Smith) and was disappointed that the Saints there weren’t able to also speak in tongues like him, feeling like it would show that they had the power of God with them. After he and Parley P. Pratt repeatedly preached about it around the time of Pentecost, he noted that the Saints “wanted something good,” so he told them to pray to “get the gifts.” Over the course of the following weekend, the Saints there began to speak in tongues, and the practice spread to other English branches. Parley Pratt would later recall the event as the time “when the Key was turned to open the door upon the Gifts of the Spirit by the twelve” (see pp. 73-74). It’s an interesting dynamic of Church leaders pushing for people to express the gift of tongues as a way to confirm to themselves that they had God’s power.

  9. Re: people expressing “the gift of tongues as a way to confirm to themselves that they had God’s power.”
    Chad, as you relate the story (I haven’t yet read Turner), it seems it may not have been so much a way for people to confirm to themselves, but rather to others and to BY and PPP, that they had God’s power. Of course, they may have convinced themselves as well that their babbling “glossolalia” was actually a gift from God. It just smacks too much of sign-seeking and effort to please authority for me to be able to muster up any belief that it was.

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